Sam Nzima's iconic photograph of a dying Hector Pieterson brought the horror of June 16th to the world and changed his life...
‘If we use this picture it’s going to spark civil war’
Sam Nzima was working at The World as a photographer on June 16 when he shot the iconic photograph.
At 6am on Wednesday June 16 1976, I was in a press car belonging to The World. Sophie Tema and I were on our way to Naledi High School to cover a student march.
The day before we had been briefed by our editor, Percy Qoboza, about the story we would cover.
When we arrived at the school, we found students preparing placards with different messages scrawled on them. “Afrikaans must be abolished”, “To hell with Afrikaans” and “We are being served by the crumbs of education” are some I remember.
When the students were done, they took to the streets.
I joined them and we marched with them peacefully. Students were coming together from several high schools across different parts of Soweto.
Tsietsi Mashinini climbed into a tree and addressed the students: “This is a peaceful march. The purpose of our march is to go to Orlando Stadium to prepare the memorandum to submit to the Department of Education that we cannot allow Afrikaans to be a medium of instruction at our schools.”
Then the students moved towards Orlando Stadium, but first they stopped at Orlando West High to pick up more students.
He ordered the police to shoot and all hell broke loose. Police were just shooting at random
The gate to the high school was locked. So the students pushed the gate and they got into the classrooms. They found the students writing a test in Afrikaans, the language which they didn’t want to be taught in.
They took all the exam papers and they tore them into pieces. They forced the students to get out from the classrooms, to go and join the others.
Before they could get out of the gates of Orlando West High, a young man came running from the Orlando East direction. He wanted to alert the students to the arrival of the police.
Indeed, when I looked in the direction of Orlando East, I saw the convoy of police cars driving down to Orlando West. I put on my press armband to identify myself.
When the police arrived ... the one who was in charge ... the white guy, he pulled out a stick and questioned the students. He said in Afrikaans: “What do you want here? I’m giving you three minutes to disperse or I’ll shoot at you.”
The students started to sing the song that was banned in South Africa, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrica.
The guy in charge of the police crew was provoked by this song. He pulled out his gun and shot directly into the crowd of students. He ordered the police to shoot and all hell broke loose. Police were just shooting at random. There was no order any more.
During the shooting, I saw that a little boy had fallen down.
I rushed to the scene. Before I could reach him, a young man — who I later found out was Mbuyisa Makhubu — picked Hector Pieterson up from the ground. There was a hysterical girl running with them. The guy was looking for the nearest car at the scene. The nearest car was our press Beetle. I took six shots before they got into the car.
When Makhubu got to the press car, Sophie Tema helped him open the door. And they took Hector Pieterson to the clinic, where he was certified dead on arrival.
So the students came back to report that Hector Pieterson was dead. Students picked up stones and struck the police ... until the police ran away. I don’t know what happened. Maybe they ran out of ammunition. I don’t know.
I knew the police would take away my camera because in those days we were not allowed to take pictures of police in action.
So I removed the film and stuffed it in my sock. Then I loaded another film.
Immediately after that, I was busy taking pictures of a policeman who was left behind when the others were running away.
When they drove off from the scene, this policeman had somehow remained behind.
When he drove his van away, he collided with an electrical pole because the students were showering him with stones. All the windows were smashed and he lost control of the car.
The students pulled him from his van and cut his throat.
And then, while I was busy taking those pictures, I was surprised the police were on me.
They took all my cameras. They klapped me and they said: “Why are you taking pictures here? You are not allowed to take these pictures.”
They exposed all the films from the other camera, but that one of Hector Pieterson was safe because I was already hiding it in my sock.
That’s how this picture got saved. This all happened at about 10am. It was in the 3pm extra late edition that the picture was used.
But before the picture was used there was a debate in the newsroom.
The chief sub-editor told the editor: “This picture is not right. If we use this picture it’s going to spark civil war in South Africa.”
Then Percy Qoboza insisted that this picture must be used. Finally they all came to an agreement: “Come what may, we’re using this picture.”
- Interview by Pearl Boshomane
Hector Pieterson, the brother of Antoinette Sithole, was one of the first children to die on June 16. Her grief was immortalised in this photograph of Hector by Sam Nzima
Hector loved jokes, our mom and kung fu movies. I often wonder, if he was still alive, would he be the same happy person he was back then?
If you liked telling jokes, Hector would never let go of you. His favourite movie actor was Bruce Lee. He would save up five cents every week so that he can sit at the bioscope all day on Saturdays.
He was born Zolile Hector Pitso. Our family changed our surname to Pieterson to improve our chances during apartheid.
Hector avoided fights and stayed away from anything that could land him in trouble.
On the day of the student uprising, Hector was not supposed to be on the march.
He knew he was in big trouble when I spotted him wandering in Moema Street, Orlando West.
By that time all hell had broken loose. Police were shooting at the protesters and everyone ran for cover.
I had just emerged from my hiding spot. The shooting had died down.
I now had to think of a plan to whisk him away from danger too.
Primary-school children like Hector were not supposed to be there. I was angry at him, but I promised to take him home safe.
Before I could act, gunshots sent us running in opposite directions. I went back to my hiding spot.
When I came out, I couldn’t see my little brother.
For a while, I waited in the same corner with the hope that Hector would come.
A few metres away, I saw students gathering with a man walking towards them. I was also curious to know what was happening there. But my main concern was Hector. I didn’t want to lose him again. If he did not find me in the same spot, he might think I’ve left without him or something had happened to me.
Moments later, the man emerged from the crowd carrying a young boy. Blood was coming out of his mouth. As they came closer I knew from the shoes he was wearing that it was Hector.
I screamed for help.
A press car that was nearby rushed us to the clinic. But Hector was declared dead.
From the clinic window, I watched as Soweto was clouded in smoke.
We never thought the protest would end that way. The excitement and joy of challenging the government earlier that morning had turned into painful tears.
As I watched the chaos outside, I wondered how I was going to tell my mother, grandmother and the whole family about what had happened to him.
With the help of two women, I told the family.
A newspaper article counted him as one of the hundreds killed during the protests.
My mother, Dorothy, didn’t show any emotion. Hector was buried three weeks later and she remained strong. Two years later, she told me that in order to deal with the loss, she had created and believed a story that Hector was hit by a car while crossing the road with me.
Our family still don’t know who killed Hector, but we have learnt to forgive that person.
What has happened, happened. It is not only our family that was affected, many families were. We were fortunate that his last moments were captured.
- Interview by Khanyi Ndabeni
My police contact warned me: ‘Sam, choose between your job and your life’
On June 16 1976 Sam Nzima took the iconic picture of a dying Hector Pieterson that horrified the world. It changed his life and destroyed his career
The photograph of Hector Pieterson after he was shot by police was taken at around 10am on June 16. It was published that same day in the late edition of The World newspaper on the front page. The following day, papers in the United Kingdom were also carrying the image on their front pages. By 18 June, US newspapers were doing the same thing.
While the consequences of publishing the photograph had been considered by The World’s editors, its effects on the life of the man behind the picture were far more serious than anyone had imagined.
Days after it was published both locally and abroad, Sam Nzima received a call from John Vorster Square, the infamous headquarters of apartheid South Africa’s police.
It was the station commander on the other end of the line.
“He said, ‘Hey is that Sam Nzima?’. I said ‘Yes, I’m Sam’. Then he asked me in Afrikaans to come see him and have a cup of coffee with him,” Nzima recalls. He considered taking the commander up on his offer, but first went to his editor at The World, Percy Qoboza, to let him know.
The editor had some sobering words for his photojournalist: “Don’t go there. If you go there, you’re going to come back a corpse.”
Qoboza then picked up the phone and called the station commander, asking him what business he had contacting Nzima.
“The station commander said, ‘Look, Percy, here in South Africa we are trying to reform from apartheid. Now here is your man Sam Nzima, he sold the picture of Hector Pieterson to a communist country, Russia. As I’m talking to you now I’m holding a magazine here. The front page of that magazine is a picture of Hector Pieterson taken by Sam Nzima. Why must Sam Nzima sell the picture to a communist country? The communists will come and attack us here.’
Then Percy said, ‘Lay your hands off Sam.’ ”
The commander hung up the phone under the pretence that he would leave Nzima alone – but he had no plans to do so. Instead, he asked which of his officers knew where the photographer lived – and one of them, Nzima’s contact in the police – tipped the photographer off.
“The same guy phoned me and said ‘Sam, don’t sleep at home. Tomorrow morning we are coming to arrest you’.”
Nzima heeded his friend’s warning and slept elsewhere that night. Coincidentally his wife, who was a nurse at Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, was working nightshift.
The police raided the couple’s home at 3am, but didn’t find the photographer.
“After they failed to find me at home, the police were given instructions that wherever they found me taking pictures they must just shoot at me, and then they would fill in a form to say that it was a stray bullet . . . they were not aiming at Sam.”
Nzima soon received another call from the same policeman who had tipped him off.
“He said: ‘Sam, choose between your job and your life. Now we have been given a final instruction to shoot and kill you because you have destroyed South Africa with that picture.’
“That is the last day I worked for The World.”
When he resigned, his editor tried to convince him to move to The World’s sister publication, but Nzima refused, saying: “It’s the same thing. I’ll still go out and take pictures. They want me, not the newspaper.”
He and his wife soon left Johannesburg for Nzima’s birthplace of Lilydale, in Bushbuckridge, Mpumalanga. He still lives there, where he runs a liquor store.
“This picture destroyed my future in journalism. Today I am no longer a journalist. I was forced out of journalism while I was still in love with journalism.”
Even though Nzima’s career was over, the police weren’t done with him yet. Three months after he left Johannesburg, three police officers showed up at his shop.
They threatened him, telling him he was under house arrest and was not allowed to be with anyone other than his wife. He was instructed from going anywhere near schools, because the police thought he would influence students to repeat what had happened in Soweto a few months before.
“If you do that rubbish you did in Soweto,” they said, “we are going to beat you up and we will lock you up.”
- Interview by Pearl Boshomane